Every election year grips Americans with political frenzy, flooding them with texts, phone calls and social media posts urging (or shaming) them to vote for a certain candidate or set of policies. These messages often promise that voting is the antidote for solving society’s problems. However, achieving positive political change requires Americans to move beyond the ballot.
To be fair, elections do have serious societal consequences. The political turnover caused by the 2016 election pushed dramatic shifts in government policy in the realm of immigration and human rights. The contentious 2020 election will be similarly monumental, as it will determine whether the United States will continue its current course.
While past elections have marked political turning points, they are not foolproof methods for securing certain policies or even changes. U.S. history has proven time and time again that politicians often fail to deliver on their campaign policy platforms.
The most obvious example is sitting President Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of building a wall on the southern border and having Mexico pay for it. Four years later, this border wall is not even half completed, and taxpayers have felt the brunt of its expense. Trump also promised to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, but his actions have led to little concrete action, much less the $1.5 trillion funding allocation he called for.
Broken promises, however, are not exclusively a Trump or a Republican problem. Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama, promised in 2008 to create a tax credit for low-income people saving for retirement; Congress rejected his proposal in 2011. He also pledged to eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies, but Congress shut down his proposal.
Politicians can have earnest intentions, but they do not always translate to tangible progress. This does not necessarily mean that politics is pointless, as cynicism helps nobody. However, it does mean that meaningful political engagement does not end at the ballot box.
Voting is just one of many ways for Americans to participate in politics. Extra-voting activism includes unconventional methods such as letter writing, phone campaigning or boycotting. These options require more effort than filling out a ballot would, but they are just as effective, if not more so.
Marginalized groups have used unconventional political participation to great effect. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement’s civil disobedience secured the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the 1970s, the Delano grape strike secured better pay and benefits for California farm workers, as well as a law establishing the right to collective bargaining for farmworkers.
Activism is a viable way to shape the political landscape by gaining politicians’ attention and influencing public opinion. These methods allow people, to some extent, to control what issues and policies appear on the ballot. They also allow people to hold their elected representatives accountable for fulfilling their promises.
Moreover, active citizens have more freedom than politicians to work toward change. Politicians are bound to a multitude of competing interests, so systemic change often gives way to compromises and quid pro quo. Active citizens do not face the same limitations, so they can boldly assert their vision and push society toward change.
These impacts are especially salient in the context of voter suppression, which has historically pervaded the electorate and is arguably reaching a new peak today. After high voter turnout from marginalized groups in the 2008 election, 20 states passed voting restrictions and closed polling places in Black and Latinx communities. This year, armed vigilantes patrolled polling places, robocalls threatened Black voters and ballot boxes suspiciously caught fire.
Given the longstanding obstacles to the democratic process, it is especially important to encourage activism and other forms of civic engagement beyond voting.
Ultimately, voting’s significance is contingent on unconventional political participation, not elected representatives. It is far more productive to continue advocating for issues one cares about long after election season is over than to waste energy on shaming non-voters or overrelying on elected officials.
Civic engagement beyond the ballot can be as simple as talking with friends and family about important issues. It can also include emailing or calling local politicians to push for action on certain policies. If that sounds intimidating, consider joining a community organization to gain training and experience in political activism like voting efforts or census counts.
Regardless of what they do, Americans must reevaluate how they engage with their political system. Voting and activism come hand-in-hand. Combined, they are the best tools for inciting meaningful and substantive change.